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What I Learned From ‘A World Without Email’

Are you and your employees slaves to the “Hyperactive Hive Mind”?

World Without Email Book Cover

Cal Newport’s book title is a little misleading. A World Without Email isn’t actually about getting rid of email, but it does a great job of hooking the reader into reading it cover-to-cover. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a little clickbait, so Newport’s book was right up my alley. For years I’ve railed against the slow onslaught of tools and behaviors driving us all to be ever more responsive at all hours of the day. Like the slaughter line moving ever faster in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, we check our inboxes incessantly, slaves to what Newport calls the “Hyperactive Hive Mind” workflow.

Newport’s “Hyperactive Hive Mind” construct is a clever and snarky label for the very real unordered, anarchical system we all follow to communicate throughout the day. Because we’ve all either been born into this way of doing things or just been boiled one degree at a time over the years, we generally take the day on by reacting to whatever comes at us, shifting from one cognitive state to another, losing a ton of efficiency along the way. One of the reasons this book appealed to me early on is that he criticizes tools like Slack (commonly thrown around in conference roundtables as a panacea) as making things potentially worse for teams because its (self-imposed) heightened level of responsiveness and resulting anxiety for knowledge workers can yield diminishing returns. While Newport doesn’t have a silver-bullet solution to combat the “Hyperactive Hive Mind” workflow, he does offer a few areas where he’s seen success.

Also by Henry Clifford: Avoiding Calcification

Newport alleges the introduction of personal computing gave rise to the idea that administrative tasks once delegated to administrative assistants could now be done by busy executives because they’d become so easy. In fact, cognitive switching around each day by high-performing individuals as they move from creating, answering emails, phone calls, texts, Slack, and updating dashboards has resulted in decreased productivity. Newport gives a few examples of companies where he’s seen jobs like sales or software development analyzed that resulted in onboarding more admin resources to keep them in motion doing more of their specialized work. In a world where adding headcount is sometimes considered a cardinal sin in a company, it might sound counterintuitive to increase some employee productivity by hiring more support staff.

I’ve seen this specialization approach work extremely well inside my own company, Livewire, as over the years we’ve broken apart our sales workflow and hired dedicated system designers and project managers. I would never want to go backwards. Even now, with all this specialization, I feel like there’s even more work to do as we explore how we can better empower our salespeople to focus more of their time being in front of customers.

In other parts of Livewire, specialization has also shown itself to yield immediate benefits. When we decided to shift our entire incoming service line over to Parasol’s AllCall service [full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Parasol], we started to see an immediate spike in customer concerns immediately becoming appointments on our service calendar. The folks who were previously handling all those inbound “Hyperactive Hive Mind” calls are now scheduled in an orderly fashion and hopefully are much happier as a result.

Also by Henry Clifford: How Do I Staff My Sales Team?

Newport’s book is a wake-up call and a rally cry to action. He posits that we’re at the precipice of redefining knowledge work, the same way the automotive industry sat just before Henry Ford started cranking out Model Ts on his assembly line. The change then was abrupt and everyone thought Ford was crazy. Who will be the crazy one now?

What are you doing to combat the “Hyperactive Hive Mind” in your company?

Gotta go, I just received a really urgent email about my TPS reports.

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.